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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

  Chapter Nine

                        The Fifth Century or ‘Patrician’ Age

 Summary. Around the Fifth Century A.D. a few writings which survived begin to appear. Even so,

most of the knowledge we regard as reasonably reliable come from writings of the following century

.The accounts of the various attempts to bring Christianity to Ireland are described, and also what we

 know of the various ruling families.


General Considerations

Names of the Tuatha

Patterns of Power

The Ui Neill in the Fifth Century

The Beginnings of Christianity


General Considerations


  Not only are there almost no Irish documents from the fifth century, there are no archaeological remains either. Almost everything is based on conjectures, with such evidence as there is coming from the following century. Though we entering the historical period, i.e. the time about which we have written documents, very few written records about Ireland survive from the fifth century. Accounts are given by the genealogists and annalists that may contain some facts. A lot depends on what credence we can give to such accounts. The difference between the northern half and the southern half of Ireland persists into this period. Almost all the literary sources refer to events in the northern half, the part where there was the heaviest concentration of La Tene finds. There is a core however of indisputable facts, such as the mission of Pope Celestine I in 432, and the mission of the bishop Patrick in the same century.

       The Celtic language spoken by all of the upper class at least was changing rapidly at this time from a

recognisable dialect of Gaulish in the fourth century to Old Irish by the seventh century. As noted earlier

there is no need to assume that the line of fracture was along the Irish Sea. There was no central ruler over

the whole of Ireland. Nor, does it seem, were there central rulers in each of the provinces. In each province,

however, there would have been groups of tuatha under superior or mesne chiefs in particular localities.

 We must remember this when examining the locations of the earliest churches.

 Geographical conditions ensured that Ireland was split into four or five regions, later called provinces, though they were never Roman provinces. Munster was the largest, but probably the least populated. One should not imagine a country evenly and densely populated from end to end. Rather most of the country was covered by dense forests or vast bogs. Forests in course of time could be cut down, and bogs partially drained. Agriculture seems to have been recovering at this time, and forests and scrub around the various tuatha cleared for tillage. The population may not have exceeded a density of 10 to the square mile, or about 10,000 in an average county. We are looking at islands of population in a vast sea of bog and forest. As late as the twelfth century, Irish dioceses had no definite boundaries, for the boundaries lay in the middle of the forests. The centres of population were linked to each other, and we can also assume that in the midst of the forests and bogs were little settlements of fugitives, or thieves.

It was always possible for privileged classes like merchants, craftsmen, and learned or religious men to go from one region to another, for they were valued. But an armed man was largely confined to his own district. Travel between Munster and the rest of Ireland was difficult, as was also travel between Ulster and the rest of Ireland. In both cases, great forests and bogs protected their borders. Leinster too was similarly protected. The border between Meath and Connaught, though to a considerable extent covered by bogs, marshes, and the river Shannon, was the most open. It was also probably the one across which river travel was easiest as the Shannon had tributaries on either bank. It was well into the Christian era before the idea of a single ruler of All-Ireland could even be envisaged. Events were unrelated to each other in the two parts until early in the eighth century when Cathal Mac Finguine attacked Leinster. Great belts of largely unoccupied land separated the two parts. The only feasible path was along the Shannon and then along the lower slopes of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The Shannon, though a large river, was difficult to navigate up and downstream. In winter it ran fast and wide, while in summer, when the water was lower there were numerous sandbanks. Also small craft suitable for travelling along the stretches of river were too small to safely cross the often stormy lakes. These difficulties were not overcome until mid-nineteenth century. Travelling from east to west and vice versa along the tributaries of the Shannon would have been much easier. It is a commentary on the character of the country that the Norse were able to establish a very defensible stronghold on the modest-sized Lake Ennel, presumably because of impassable bogs it’s shores were only approachable from the lake itself.

At the time of the arrival of Christianity and with it some written records the basic political shape of Ireland was beginning to take shape which was to last for the next thousand years. The most densely populated part of the country was the belt in the middle, east of the Shannon, and north of the present Dublin-Galway line and extending to the present Ulster border. It is also the region about which most historical records survive and the history of the Ui Neill can be given with reasonable confidence from the fifth century onwards. This region, and the eastern maritime counties in general were presumably the most open to influences of all kinds from the Roman Empire on the other side of the Irish Sea. As monasteries increased and with them the habit of keeping annals we gradually gain more information about the other parts of Ireland. It is also the region where the early churches and monasteries are found. [Top] 

Names of the Tuatha

Though the names of the tuatha are found in written sources of a later date, it is possible for scholars to make out the locations of the names. There are three distinct groups of name-forms in Ireland. In the north they have the form of Clann, Cenel, Ui, Fir, or Dal all meaning much the same thing, descent from a recent common ancestor, followed by the name of the ancestor. The same is true of South Leinster. In Munster the characteristic name ends in -rige or else begins with Corcu. These types of names are sometimes found in Connaught. The third group is in north Leinster and extending into Connaught, the borderlands of south Ulster and south Leinster with forms like Delbna or Luigne. Other names like Deisi (Dayshe), Decies, Loigse, (Leegse, later Leix or Laoighis, Leesh ), Oirthir, Orior, and so on, have no obvious explanation of their form. Over all of these spread the branches of the Eoganacht and the Connacht and probably also the Cianacht in the fifth century, all with names of the Ulster type. Three principal groups had names ending in -acht, the Eoganacht, the Connacht, and the Cianacht and these names seem to have been derived from gods. All these names seem to refer not to the tuath but to the principal families of the tuath from which the chief was selected. In a similar manner the geographical region called Italia is called after the Itali and Sicilia after the Siculi. This would suggest a group derived from a common sanctuary or shrine, perhaps even an amphictony. In Munster the various septs of the Eoganacht were not given separate names but assigned geographical locations. The family structure was however the same. Some see the clan names ending in -rige or beginning with Corcu (and in the north Dal) as the most ancient, with some or all god-related like Boandrige from the river goddess Boand (MacNicholas). A name too like Luigne could be derived from the god Lug. Those beginning with Ui would have been the most recent. Ua means grandson of, and Ui is the plural, but Ui naturally included great grandsons in the normal four generation derb fine. But most of these family names became generic and included all those who had any claim to be chief. They were all also hopelessly inter-married within the forbidden degrees of Roman or canon law. We are making a major assumption, namely that the genealogies are at least approximately true. We know that the genealogies in the Bible are, in many cases, artificial constructions, for example the accounts of the descendants from Adam, or the sons of Noah. Irish genealogists similarly constructed fictitious genealogies.[Top]

Patterns of Power

It is fairly easy to work out from later data the distribution of the various tuatha and the families who controlled them. It is much more difficult to decide from data compiled a few centuries after the events, the balances of powers, the power struggles, and the sequences of events in those power struggles. Scholars are by and large agreed that by the end of the Roman period there was considerable disruption occurring in the political balance in Ireland, and that new groups were coming to the fore and establishing themselves as local overlords. There is a general consensus too that the slave-raiding into Britain that characterised the late Roman period increased the wealth and military power of those who took part. It seems also to be agreed that certain groups such as the Laigin in east Ireland, the Ulaid in north east Ireland, and the Corcu Loegde in Munster had acquired a certain eminence as local overlords. It is not at all clear who or what the Laigin or the Ulaid were. Were they family groups like the later Ui Neill or a league of tuatha? The Ulaid in particular seem to have been dominated by unrelated families. Similarly the Laigin seem to have been composed originally of unrelated families. If the various groups with a god or goddess in their names were tuatha that worshipped at a particular shrine who had agreed on a common enterprise such as a raid into England, it would give a sufficient mass and cohesion for initial conquests on Ireland as well. But as they dispersed over Ireland the initial cohesion would be lost, but the cohesion of family groups would remain.

 The particular quest we are studying here is the spread of the Eoganacht families in southern Ireland and the Connacht families including the Ui Neill in northern Ireland. There are disputes among scholars as to whether Ireland in the fifth century was conquered by these families from east to west or from west to east. Some prefer to see the Eoganacht and the Connacht originating in fierce military families in the more barren western parts, gradually conquering the more fertile parts in the centre and the east. Others see them as originating in the east, gaining wealth and military expertise from raids to Britain, and then as they needed tuatha for their younger sons to rule, attacking west.

In this theory, the Connacht would have been originally from around Tara in Meath. Byrne, in his genealogical tables commences with Echu Mugmedon who had three important sons, Niall Naoigiallach, Fiachra, and Brion. From the latter pair were descended the Ui Fiachrach and Ui Briuin chiefs of Connaught, of whom more later. Nath I son of Fiachra and Aiilil Molt his grandson (d. 482) became overchiefs of Tara. After the battle of Ocha in 482 AD the Ui Neill allegedly secured the exclusion of the Ui Fiachrach from the chieftainship of Tara. There certainly were none of them after the death of Aillil Molt.  Echu Mugmedon would have been a chief somewhere near Tara. His sons would have commenced the expansion towards the west. The family unity lasted for some time, but gradually it split into antagonistic branches, the Ui Neill, the Ui Briuin and the Ui Fiachrach. Three of Echu’s grandsons, Eogan, Enda, and Conall Gulban would have attacked towards north west into Donegal. (This would have the advantage of placing the Connacht next to the Ulaid for the contest between them forms the local basis of the Tain.) Others contend that the Ui Neill may have been originally from Connaught and indeed have been lesser branches of the ruling family there. This theory maintains they attacked the Laigin in Leinster, and seized the sacred site of Tara from them. Some Connaught chiefs like Nath I and Aillil Molt are placed among the earliest overchiefs of Tara. They maintain that the geographical spread of the Ui Neill and the Eoganacht is better explained by an expansion from western parts. In either case, the sons of Niall Naoigiallach, by the end of the century had succeeded in excluding their Connacht rivals from the over-chieftainship of Tara.

I favour the spread from east to west. Tuatha on the east coast were more likely to participate in raids on Britain, to receive warrior refugees from Britain, and to amass wealth and power from the slave trade. Leagues like the Ulaid and the Laigin could concentrate power along stretches of the east coast, and then exact tribute from the less successful tuatha inland. Some of the earlier participants in the raids like the Deisi in Meath could have found themselves squeezed out and then finding another role as the chief assistants of the Eoganacht in Munster

Not only must the direction of the expansions be considered, but also the timescales. Was there a sudden expansion of the Eoganacht and the Connacht in the fifth century or was what we know of the distribution of their families at the beginning of the sixth century the result of centuries of expansion? We know that in Ireland the concentration of power to the extent that there was only a single family controlling a province was not attained until the tenth or eleventh century. At the beginning of the sixth century, the very feeble efforts made by the Ui Neill, supposedly the strongest military power in the northern half of Ireland shows that the concentration of power had not proceeded very far.

I am inclined to conclude that there was no sudden expansion of the Eoganacht and Connacht, and that what we know of circumstances about the middle of the fifth century was the result of centuries of wars. If the initial expansion was at the same rate as during the historical period it must have commenced at an early date.  By the year 450 AD, the Connacht under Echu Mugmedon had reached the stage of ruiri or overchief over a handful of tuatha in Meath. Their opponents, the Laigin would have had the same status. These overchiefs would have battled for the possession of the sacred site of Tara. I am inclined to think that the expansion of the Connacht and the Eoganacht was initially very fast, but also very dispersed. They would have raided Ireland like they raided Britain, and also displaced local rulers from small tuatha and installed their own kin in dispersed areas. This initial expansion would have carried the Connacht west of the Shannon where they seized tuatha in various parts of that province. They would even have expanded, using ships to capture small tuatha along the coast in Donegal. The advance of the Eoganacht also seems to have started on the east coast around Waterford. A tradition said that a member of a family exiled to Britain returned, and with the help of the Deisi of Brega established himself in Eile in north Munster. The Deisi of Brega, who were probably pirates, established themselves in Waterford. It is possible that the Deisi began the attack with the help of British mercenaries, and established themselves on the more profitable coast. The original settlement of the Eoganacht seems to have been in the tuath of Eile, but they soon established themselves on a remarkable rock not far away at Cashel. From there they and their allies the Deisi conquered various dispersed tuatha in Munster. This dispersal, and lack of a focal point, meant that they were unable or unwilling to co-operate as the Ui Neill were able to do in the north. But the co-operation among the Ui Neill was very limited. We must always remember that we are trying to reconstruct events from documents written centuries later when the political situation was quite different.


So by the middle of the fifth century we find four powerful groups on the east coast, the Ulaid, the Laigin, the Eoganacht and the Connacht who had some control over the tuatha further inland. They had considerable contacts with Roman Britain, either by raiding or trading. They were probably intermarried with the leading British families on the west coast of Britain, and were used to Roman ways. In their territories there were probably quite a number of Britons living, some of whom were Christian, Christianity now being reasonably established in south Wales and in Strathclyde. Almost certainly these Christians would have been among the lowest strata, the slaves, the sen cleithes and the fuidhirs. These latter, though at the very bottom of the social scale, could have been very important and useful to their owners or patrons. Like Greek slaves in Rome, they could have possessed valuable skills, the ability to read and write, and to speak Latin. Or they could have possessed a knowledge of the value of goods, and been able to bargain with foreign traders. It was to minister to these people that the first Christian priests came to Ireland.


       With regard to the political structure we are again reduced to trying to interpret the situation in the fifth century in the light of much later legal documents dating from a period when there was a hierarchy of chiefs within a province with hierarchical subordination    . In the later law tracts there were three grades of chief the ri tuaithe, who controlled an area the size of a barony, the ri ruiri or greater chief who ruled his own barony, but was also the overlord of other barony chiefs perhaps in a whole county. Then there was the ri ruirech who was overlord of all the chiefs in a province. By the eighth century it is clear that among the Ui Neill, the chiefs of Clan Colmain at Uisneach, and of Cenel Eogain at Aileach and Sil nAedo Slaine at Brega respectively had the rank of ri ruiri so that the chief of Tara, being over them, would have the position of ri ruirech. (This latter rank did not necessarily mean then, as it later came to mean, the overlord of a province, but merely the overlord of overlords.) Whether any of these chiefs in the fifth century controlled more than one tuath each may be doubted. Chiefs were essentially elected chiefs of warbands, so the two grades would correspond to captains of ships and a captain of the fleet. Both offices were elective. This system would work when all the warriors with a vote belonged to branches of the same family. But there were obviously other conquered tribes, who likely became client tribes, who would have no vote in elections for the chieftainship of the ruling family.[Top]


The Ui Neill in the Fifth Century

       There is a complete list of kings of Tara from Niall Naoigiallach (Neel Nee geelach, Niall of the nine hostages d. 453?) which can be taken as reasonably certain. The list refers of course not to the 'high kings' of Ireland but to the overlords or paramount chiefs of the Ui Neill. This is the only family with regard to which we have reasonable information respecting the fifth century. He was followed by his son Loeguire (Laereh) who was killed in the wars with the Laigin. His dates are given provisionally as c 454 to c 460. Among Loeguire’s brothers the genealogists record Conall Cremhthain from who the Southern Ui Neill claimed descent, Eogan (Owen) of Aileach from whom the Cenel Eogain of Aileach and Inishowen claimed descent, Conall Gulban from whom Cenel Conaill of Tir Conaill, and Coirpre, besides other brothers who held lesser pieces of land in Meath. (There are at present between twenty and thirty baronies in Meath and on the borders of the surrounding counties, and a further eight in Donegal. The immediate descendants of Niall Naoigiallach may have captured several of these.) Coirpre succeeded Loeguire. According to tradition c. 460 the succession to the chieftainship of Tara was disputed by members of the collateral branch from Connaught, Nath I and his son Aillil Molt of the Ui Fiachrach and they were successfully elected. The battle of Ocha or Faughan Hill forty three years after the coming of Patrick (482?, 502?) is said to have led to the exclusion of the Ui Fiachrach branch from the chieftainship of Tara. Finally Lugaid (Louie) son of Loeguire is said to have ruled from c 485 to 507. None of these were known as Ui Neill.


Conall Gulban, son of Niall, was supposed to have land around Ballyshannon on the borders with Connaught, as we would expect, but we also find the Cenel Conaill and the Cenel Eogan established in the north of the county, occupying the northern quarter of the county between them. The land around Ballyshannon is one of the few fertile places in the county, but the best land in the county is in east Donegal around Raphoe, and it would appear that it was from here that the great expansion of the northern Ui Neill took place. Like Norman families, the sons of Niall Naoigiallach would have targeted small and possibly impoverished tuatha in Donegal, a rather barren county and worked in harmony with each other. (The Irish climate was probably somewhat warmer in those days, somewhat warmer and dryer, with settlements possible in places that were not occupied again until the population explosion in the late eighteenth century. The land around the old church of Killeavy in south Armagh, one of the earliest in Ireland, is not very prepossessing nowadays, but other archaeological sites in the area show that it was settled and farmed.) Originally the Cenel Conaill seems to have been the strongest branch, while the Cenel Eogain occupied the peninsula of Inishowen. The Cenel Enda seems to have occupied the Laggan, the fertile area around Raphoe, which was later occupied by Clan Connor of Magh Ithe, a branch of the Cenel Eogain. The Cenel Enda never amounted to much and its land was later swallowed up by the other two. They then each presumably established themselves as local over-chiefs of the neighbouring tuatha. They were not yet ready to challenge the established powers in Ulster like the Cianacht, the Oirgialla, and the Ulaid. Even relatively minor family groups like the Cianacht had to be by-passed. What exactly gave the Ui Neill their edge over the others is not clear, but over the next thousand years they were to conquer and largely occupy most of Ulster. This expansion was slow, at a rate of scarcely 10 miles in a hundred years, but slowly and surely most of the land of Ulster came to be owned and occupied by the northern Ui Neill.

Several others of the sons of Niall Naoigiallach seem to have been involved in the drive in Meath, Conall Cremhthain, Loeguire, and Coirpre, among them. The chief branches of the southern Ui Neill were descended from a grandson of Conall Cremhthain called Diarmait mac Cerbaill. The southern Ui Neill seem to have established themselves at an early date in a tuath near Screen very close to Tara in eastern Meath, presumably roughly the present barony. They may have driven out the Deisi or restricted their territory to the present baronies of Upper and Lower Deece. This was and is some of the best land in Ireland. Later they formed an overlordship over the local tuatha, and formed a local chiefdom historically known as Brega, which included various subject clans. There was another branch near Killallon about thirty miles west of Screen descendants of Colmain Bec. Another branch, descendants of Loeguire mac Niall had a tuath near Navan, scarcely more than 10 miles from Screen. They survived as the small sept of O’Quinlans survived until 1690. Just west of Navan was another Ui Neill family, that of Ardgal. These latter two never grew in importance, but survived as petty subordinate tuatha for centuries. To the west of these again in present day Westmeath, lay the lands of Clan Colmain, the most successful of the branches of the Southern Ui Neill. Their great centre was around the hill or shrine of Uisneach, roughly the present barony of Rathconrath. Like their cousins around Screen, they were to carve out quite a large overlordship for themselves, finally covering Westmeath and parts of adjacent counties. Some of the tuatha around them would have been daer tuatha, paying tribute. But for a long time most of the tuatha would have been independent. But at the beginning of their expansion the sons of Niall Naoigiallach probably only possessed a few tuatha around Navan and Tara. If Saint Patrick ever visited them they would only have been minor local chiefs. [Top]

The Beginnings of Christianity

       The whole of the writing of the history of the Church in Ireland has been distorted by the development of the St Patrick legend in aid of the claims of the see of Armagh to the primacy of Ireland. The legend benefited by the fact that the only two reliable Irish writings of the fifth century were his.  As much of this legend is now discounted we must make a fresh start. It is now recognised that St Patrick was not the first to convert the Irish, and was not the first bishop in Ireland. But Armagh's based their claims to primacy and rents on the alleged facts that it was the earliest of the surviving dioceses, and that it was founded by St Patrick in the fifth century.

       I have suggested in an earlier chapter that the earliest missions among the pagan tribes to the north and east of the Roman Empire were to scattered groups of Christian slaves. As trading never ceased, there could always have been settlements of traders and craftsmen who were also Christian or had been Christian.

       The first definite mention of Christianity in Ireland recorded in writing was in the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine which was completed about 450 AD. Prosper strongly opposed Pelagianism and strongly supported the teaching of St Augustine (d. 430 AD) on this point. . Under the year 431 Prosper has the cryptic note, ‘Palladius was ordained  by Pope Celestine, and sent to the Irish believers in Christ as their first bishop’ (de Paor79). On this line an enormous amount of speculation was built especially regarding a supposed Gaulish mission to Ireland. Two years earlier Palladius, the archdeacon of Pope Celestine had been acting as a messenger between the Pope and Germanus of Auxerre. Germanus had just been sent to deal with Pelagianism in Britain, as also mentioned by Prosper This raises all sorts of questions. Why did the Pope send him? Who told the Pope that there were Christians in Ireland? Why a deacon from the church of Auxerre, and not a priest from the nearby British Church? One explanation would be that somebody had told the Pope, that the Irish Christians, priests and laymen, were infected with Pelagianism, and the Pope decided to send a person of sound doctrine to deal with them. This need not imply that a diocese was created for him in Ireland, any more than one was created for St Germanus in Britain. It would seem that his mission was to the Laigin, and that  they still controlled Tara and parts of Meath at the time. What is clear is that Palladius was ordained bishop in 431 and was sent to Ireland to the Irish believers in Christ as their first bishop. Muirchu, a biographer of St Patrick, writing two hundred and fifty years later, say that Palladius retired to Britain. If so, he was presumably a bishop there.

 Palladius may, or may not, have been accompanied by three priests called Secundinus,  Auxilius, and Iserninus, who may, or may not, have come from Gaul, and who may have been made  bishops later on either by Palladius or some other bishop, On the other hand, they may have been British priests already ministering in Leinster. References to these three are late and inconsistent, and there is no contemporary evidence that they were bishops. They undoubtedly existed, but who they were, where they came from, or who sent them is not obvious.  Secundinus is associated with Dunshaughlin (barony of Rathoath, co. Meath); Auxilius with Killashee near Naas in Kildare. Iserninus is associated with Aghade near Tullow in Carlow, and also with Kilcullen, county Kildare. Dunshaughlin was then in territory controlled by the Laigin. (Corish 2). The churches they founded were on hilltops near the forts of the principal local chiefs.  We can assume that the church or diocese was co-extensive with the local tuath, and the land for its support was given by the local ri. It is reasonable to assume that the places they built their churches were also the places where there was the greatest number of British Christians. The Laigin too were among those who had the closest contacts with post-Roman Britain.


de Paor gives a map of churches associated with ‘pre-Patrician saints’, seven in all, and they are in a close group in south Leinster and north Munster, four in Leinster and three in Munster (de Paor 38-45, 274).

 Just as the  earliest  churches in North Leinster were associated  with  Secundinus,  Auxilius, and Iserninus, so the earliest churches in South Leinster and Munster were associated  with St Declan of Ardmore, St Abban,  St. Ibhar of Beggary, St Ciaran of Saighir and St Ailbe. If that is true, Christianity came later to Munster  than to the other provinces for the death of Ailbe is recorded after 527. These are  sometimes called the 'pre-Patrician saints', but  they  would have been contemporaries of Patrick, with Ailbe a younger contemporary. de Paor  considers all references  to work of St Patrick in Munster  to be later  fictions. There is no indication that any chief other than  Oengus mac Nad Froich of Emly  was ever baptised. In the traditions he is associated with St Ailbe of Emly. Emly was the  first  and much more important church in Munster before the era of the  dominance of the Eoganacht of Cashel. There was another group of churches, chiefly in North Leinster but spreading across Central Ireland into Connaught, said to have been founded by British priests. (de Paor in his map p. 292, shows this part of Ireland still under the control of the Laigin.) One of these at Trim, co. Meath was said to have been founded by St Lomman twenty five years before the church in Armagh. The churches in South Leinster and in North Munster would have been later, by half a century than those in North Leinster, and probably contemporary with this of the British priests in Meath, and with the mission of Patrick among the Oirgialla. The impression one gets is that Christianity was first established firmly in Ireland in county Kildare, and from there spread out over most of Ireland except the north. Most, or all of the priests would have been British.

Who was the first bishop of an Irish diocese?  It is impossible to answer this question for we have no idea if those who founded churches acquired their episcopal rank posthumously. (The same problem exists with regard to Wales and Scotland.) It is impossible to say if an Irish diocese was created for Palladius, or whether the existing Irish parishes were just added to an existing British diocese. Pope Celestine sent Palladius as a bishop to Ireland but apparently he did not stay long. He could have returned because of illness, or because of the hostility of the local chiefs, or merely to return to his own diocese. As in the case of St Patrick, he was probably made a bishop of an existing diocese. A late tradition makes him bishop of Carlisle or Whithorn, which is likely enough. The annals are not reliable before the middle of the sixth century. The big difficulty is the impression given that there was an excessive number of  fifth century bishops recorded in the annals, especially if one compares conditions in Ireland with those in Wales, where priests founded churches. There may have been bishops in Ireland, but there was no need  for  them. By the standards of Gaul one bishop would have been sufficient for the whole island. Ordained priests and the holy oils could easily have been obtained from Wales. It may very well have been that when Patrick, later in the century, came to northern Ireland, there was no bishop there. There may even have been no bishop in the whole of Ireland. Patrick himself may not have consecrated any bishops. The whole history of the fifth century is too vague, and at the same time obscured by tendentious claims, that considerable scepticism is warranted about it. For centuries, in more modern times there were priests but no bishops in large parts of the United States, the colonies being subject to an English Vicar Apostolic. If no bishoprics were formed in Ireland in the fifth century, because there were no cities, it would explain the way the Irish Church developed in the following century. 

There may indeed have been a mission from Gaul, sent at the instigation of the Pope, at the time of the Pelagian scare. But one would have expected that most of the missionary effort would have come from Celtic Britain. Celtic states existed in Wales, Cumbria, and Cornwall to quite a late date. Normal practice, then as now, would have been to send priests, or to allow volunteer priests to go, into pagan villages. This happened in Wales. Bede, quoting the unreliable Gildas, later accused the British Church with not being sufficiently active in converting the pagan Saxons, but as usual such remarks apply only to the ruling classes. St Augustine of Canterbury was lucky because the local chief was already married to a Christian woman. The chiefs of the barbarians became Christians whenever they saw an advantage to themselves in it.


       There can be little doubt that the introduction of Christianity into Ulster was independent of its introduction into Leinster. Nor is there any reason to doubt that it followed a similar pattern. Therefore we would expect several priests from the dioceses of York and Carlisle to have been ministering to British captives. A chance remark of Tertullian indicates that the Christian clergy preached beyond the extent of Roman arms. The aim of the Patrician myth was to make all of these priests later than and subordinate to St Patrick. It also intended to downgrade and belittle Palladius, for if it were conceded that Palladius founded a diocese Armagh could not claim neither the primacy nor the tribute. The clergy of Armagh stood stoutly by their claim, that Patrick was the bishop of Armagh, and that Armagh was the first diocese in Ireland, and that consequently all other dioceses had to be subordinate to it. They could not prove this, but then the other churches could not disprove it. Kildare, however, with some reason, claimed to be earlier.

Of Patrick and his mission  we really know nothing  except  what we can glean from his two obscure pieces of writing, the 'Declaration' (Confessio) and the 'Letter against the Soldiers of Coroticus' (Ceredic or Caradog). The Declaration was really a letter  written to members of his own family justifying his  conduct in Ireland, and written to people  who were largely conversant  with the events of his life  and  disapproved of  them. In fact the nub of their complaints seems to have been  that he was spending family money in Ireland which should,  they thought, have been used for  their  support. The other letter was a written rebuke of a minor British chief  named Coroticus whose soldiers had captured and carried away into  slavery some of Patrick's own  converts. Coroticus was himself apparently a Christian.

 Patrick was born in Roman Britain, almost certainly on the north west coast near Carlisle. His grandfather had been a priest, and his father a deacon and civil administrator with the rank of decurion. He was born  shortly after the departure of the Roman armies, when the British were still trying to re-organise  their defences against the raids of the Scots. He was probably captured  by the raiders from Ireland around 430 AD. When he escaped after several year's slavery, he returned  home  and was made a priest, and later a bishop of  some town in the northern half of Britain, possibly Carlisle. He seems to have been  and to have remained a bishop in Britain. But he  spent  much of his  time and money in Ireland, hence the  complaint apparently that he deserted his see for motives of profit. There is no reason to believe  that he was ever the bishop of an Irish diocese.

        He considers that his mission was chiefly to the ordinary people of Ireland whom he calls Hiberionaces not to the ruling classes whom he calls  Scotti (de Paor 93). This would fit with the theory that the first Christian priests and bishops were sent to minister to the captured Christian slaves, and other British Christian settlers.   He seems to have returned to Ireland about 460 in response to a vision (de Paor 90). This chronology places the mission of St Patrick  firmly in the  second half of the  fifth century, and  thirty years after Palladius, Auxilius and Iserninus. Oddly enough, only one placename is mentioned, namely the wood of Foclut by the western sea near where he served his captivity.

 Where he laboured in Ireland is unclear as well. Tradition has it  that he  landed in County Down and founded his  first  church at Saul near Downpatrick, which town also claims a connection  with him. This local tuath would have been one of the subordinate tuatha of the Ulaid. It is probable  that he provided a priest for the existing Christians and new converts on the coast, if there was not one there already. It is also likely that he worked among the Oirgialla and indeed may have worked principally among  them. Whether there were any priests working in Ulster before the arrival of Patrick about 460 is hard to say. The obits of the earliest priests and bishops in Ulster, Mochai of Nendrum, MacCartan of Clogher, MacNissi of Connor are more consistent with an arrival after Patrick, but again the dating in the Annals is itself suspect.  The Annals of Ulster conveniently provide for the death of Benignus, the first bishop of Armagh in 467. He may have visited the Southern Ui Neill near Tara, and the Northern Ui Neill at Aileach. It is hard  to see how  he  could have avoided  going to the ruling over-lords, if the over-lordship of the Ui Neill had been established by his  time. But this is very doubtful. On the other hand, his mission may have been largely confined to the lands of the Oirgialla. It is likely that place-names beginning or ending in 'donagh' represent churches of the Patrician age, but not necessarily founded by Patrick. The Latin Domus Dominica (House of the Lord) would accurately reflect the Greek Kyriacon  (kirk, church) which was the house  where the people of the Lord  met to pray. Ecclesia in both Latin and Greek meant the local body of faithful.

The Northern Ui Neill, namely those descended from Eogan  and Conall Gulban, had apparently at  this  time secured possession of tuatha in north and south Donegal.. A map given by de Paor of the distribution of the principal Christian sites at the beginning of the sixth century show  them to have been largely among the Oirgialla, and then  in north Leinster in the territory recently conquered by Niall and Loeguire, lands recently in the  possession of the Laigin. There are only two churches in Donegal, one at Carndonagh among the Cenel Eogain, and the other at Raphoe among the Cenel Conaill. The tradition given in the ninth century 'Tripartite  Life of St Patrick' that St Patrick blessed the  sons of Eogan and the sons of Conall is not impossible (Mullin and Mullan 18). At what date a church was founded in Armagh is impossible to establish. It would probably have been in the tuath of Oirthir (Orior). The scribes in Armagh were determined to prove that their church and diocese was the first in Ireland, a claim nobody today would allow to pass unchallenged.


       By 492 AD when Patrick is supposed to have  died there  were close connections between the churches in Britain and Ireland. British priests seem routinely to have  come to Ireland. Irish Christians wishing to study for the priesthood or the monastic life would have travelled routinely to Britain. The idea that St Patrick converted the Irish single-handedly is clearly mythical. A question must be asked, Was there ever any connection between Bishop Patrick and Armagh? Scholars are usually very sceptical of any claims of any churchmen in the Middle Ages with regard to anything to which revenues were attached. And there were revenues claimed by Archbishops of Armagh. There certainly was a later monastery at Armagh, from which the town and city is derived. But there was no town before the monastery. Indeed a monastery was always built in a waste spot. Nor was there any seat of a major chiefdom near to which it was common to erect a church. Eamhain Macha was long since deserted. The place seems to have been in the territory of a local branch of the Oirgialla, the Oirthir (Orior). Was the sole connection between the monastery of Armagh and St Patrick the fact that the two precious manuscripts of his writings were found in its library? Given that, any monastic scribe and genealogist worth his salt could provide the connection. On the other hand it could be plausibly argued that the present diocese of Armagh represents the ancient territory of the Oirthir. In this case the chief must have had a wooden residence somewhere, and probably near the present city of Armagh. Armagh could then have had a resident priest or deacon from the time of St Patrick, who only needed to be posthumously promoted to episcopal rank. Whether Patrick ever returned to his diocese or died in Ireland is unknown.

       De Paor dismisses to so-called ‘Synod of St Patrick’ as a later compilation. Corish considers that some of the canons may have had a connection with Auxilius and Iserninus.


       The overall conclusions are that several British priests preached in Ireland at least from the first half of the fifth century. Palladius, possibly a bishop of a British diocese, came to Ireland briefly around 432. Several churches were founded by British priests chiefly in Leinster and parts of Munster bordering on it, probably before 450. Churches were founded in the southern half of Ulster, principally among the Oirgialla after 450, and may all have been connected with Bishop Patrick. Finally, towards the end of the century, more priests established themselves in other parts of Munster and in Connaught. It is impossible to say which was the first surviving Irish diocese, but it was almost certainly in Leinster. Emly, not Cashel, was probably the first church in Munster, but Cashel could have been the first diocese.


       Note. The Latin spelling of Irish names seems to reflect a time when consonants between vowels were still pronounced. Later these were aspirated or completely silent, but modifying the vowels. Thus Lagen becomes Laighin and pronounced as line, but in Latin became Lagenia.. This modification was  never complete, and it could develop in stages over the centuries. Thus Catherlough in the Middle Ages becomes Carlow. Some would also argue that spelling was always archaic and centuries behind the actual pronunciation. Hence modern scholars tend to use modern Irish pronunciation which is certainly historically incorrect.

       Modern Irish spelling, like that of other languages, retains various letters that were formerly pronounced but now are not. The letter d and g at the end of a name are always silent. Many consonants in the middle of a word between two vowels become silent and modify the vowel sounds as mentioned above. Many names have a genitive case that often consists of inserting an i before the last consonant. The initial vowel is also aspirated. Thus Conall becomes Chonaill. But -ch becomes -g which then becomes silent. If it begins with a vowel n is often prefixed and written nA or nO as the case may be. Mac (genitive meic or mic) means son. Ua (plural Ui) means a grandson, but the Ui is often used generically to denote the entire family. Niall (neel) in the genitive becomes Neill (nale). The name following mac and ui is always in the genitive, which often too differs considerably from the modern form. The adjective following the name is also declined. The rules were somewhat different in ancient Irish so the names given by the scribes do not always seem to follow the rules. When there is a doubt whether the vowel is an a or an o I have used o as that was the form used in the Middle Ages when English-speakers first wrote them down. Thus Oirgialla (Oriel) instead of Airgialla which is equally correct. Nd became nn in modern Irish, though clann was clearly pronounced cland. O in places became u, though in my own name mond has become Mumhan (Mooan). Modern Irish historians are not wholly consistent in rendering ancient spelling, depending on the degree to which modern Irish spelling should be approached and conjectures about the pronunciation of various letters derived from the Roman alphabet. One could write a whole treatise on how St. Patrick pronounced his own name. I have tried to provide forms suitable for those who have no knowledge of Irish ancient or modern. They will have little difficulty in recognising the genitive form after mac in personal names.

       In the Middle Ages when there was a recognised anglicised form it is better  for non-Irish speakers to stick to that pronunciation. But this is not possible  for earlier periods.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.